Driving up to Jebel Akhdar

Jebel Akhdar (Green Mountain) is the second highest point in Oman and is famous for its otherworldly feel as you rise far above the main Omani valley floors up to the large Saiq plateau 2000m /6560ft above sea level. The experience itself is all about talking short walks through the small gorgeous mountain villages that are connected by the UNESCO World Heritage listed irrigation systems; looking down into the seriously impressive, yet also abundant, canyons; and generally gawping out the window as the stunning mountain scenery passes by.  Very much worth the day trip from Muscat

 

That being said, if you only have a day or two from Muscat to explore the Hajar Mountains, I would prioritise this just behind the very similar drive up to nearby Jebel Shams (see travel entry here – Walking Jebel Sham’s Wadi Ghul canyon).  Or, if looking for more of an adventure, the sensational 4WD drive to cross the Hajar mountains via Hatt (see travel entry here – )

 

Top tips:

#1 Do you need a 4WD – yes.  Whilst there is very little need for an actual 4WD, there is a police check point at the start of the drive up to the plateau that checks you have a 4WD.  The reason is not because of the road quality (we only drove on paved roads), but because of the long descent down from the plateau and the need to be able to manually change into a lower gear to avoid brakes overheating (yes, I get that you don’t need a 4WD for that, but I doubt you want to argue with the Omani Police)

#2 Be sure to walk part of the Village Trail Hike (W18b).  The 4km hike goes between the small mountain villages of Al Aqor and Seeq, but if you don’t want such a long walk (there and back), there is a short gorgeous walk that starts at the official start of the walk (look for “Terraced Fields Viewpoint” or “Dieter’s Point”) and lets you walk through the terraces to the small village of Al-Ain.  The walk has amazing views through the canyon, lets you see the irrigation channels and the ornate villages themselves.  If you find yourself thinking non of this is clear in the signposting . . .  you are not alone.  But once you get to the start point (a car park) it is very straightforward

#3 Have lunch at the fabulous Alila Jabal Akhdar – staying at this hotel with its insane views across the nearby canyon will set you back min US$500 / night.  Instead, go for lunch which is fairly reasonable (US$40 / head) which will also let you have a wander round

#4 How much time do you need?  Its a full day trip from Muscat, with total driving time around 5-6 hours and a total distance of 400km / 250miles.  With the walk to the mountain villages, stopping for photos and having lunch you’re looking at around 10 hours or so

Exploring Nizwa Fort and Souq

The town of Nizwa is famous for its Fort, high walled Souq and wonderful location on the valley floor surrounded by palm trees and the daunting Hajar Mountains.  Probably doesn’t justify the 2 hour drive from Muscat on its own, but its very much worth an extra hour or so if you are already planning a trip into the mountains to see the likes of Jebel Shams, Jebel Akhdar or some of the more adventurous trips across the mountains

Top Tip – go for sunset.  The changing colours both in the fort and in the dussilhouettes of the distant mountains makes it worth it

4WDing across the Hajar Mountains via Hatt

The Hajar Mountains, with their spectacular peaks, hidden hill towns, mini luscious oases and dramatic canyons are some of the most striking mountains in the world and by far the highlight of Oman.  Most people visit the forts of Bahla, the Wadi Ghul canyon and drive up to the plateau of Jebel Shams, Oman’s highest mountain – and these really worth doing.  But for a truly world-class experience, rent a 4WD and drive the mountain road from Bahla to Rustaq via Hatt.  The number of fellow tourists drop off dramatically, the valleys and peaks become more dramatic, the hill towns and oases are significantly more remote and untouched, and above all you’ll have a great feeling of adventure.  It’s not for the faint hearted though – the road is challenging, with the majority of your time spent on dirt roads, the drops off the side can be a little terrifying, and at times you will feel a bit isolated with no other drivers around you.  But, considering the ease at which you can experience this (easily be done in a day from Muscat and 4WD rentals are easy to rent), this should be right at the top of your list for Oman

 

Top tips:

  1. Is the route hard  to follow – no.  I’ve seen plenty of blogs that make it seem easy to get lost.  It really isn’t.  I’ve listed below the route to demonstrate some of the things you can expect to see, but you can just plug it into google maps and you’ll have no problems.  Even without google maps, its basically a direct road except for 2 forks that are clearly signposted
  2. Do you need a 4×4 – absolutely.  Contrary to many things written about the Jebel Shams ascent, I think you can easily get up Jebel Shams without a 4WD.  But you absolutely cannot do this mountain route without a 4WD – that would be dangerous
  3. Is it dangerous – as long as you (i) have a 4WD; (ii) don’t drive in the rain or when the road is very wet; (iii) don’t be reckless; (iv) use a bit of common sense when other cars are passing, this is not dangerous.  That being said, it is challenging and at times nerve wracking just because of the steep sides
  4. How much time does it take – it took me 3 hours for the drive, including stopping just about every 10mins for photos.  I think if you wanted to stop in some of the villages, add on an extra hour on.  If you are driving from Muscat, it’s around 1.5hours to Rustaq and around 2hours to Bahla.  So, all in from Muscat you’re looking at a 6.5-7.5 hour day
  5. The obvious stuff – your chances of something going wrong are low, but it always makes sense to prep correctly – reduce the pressure in your tires by around 20% for the offroading; make sure you have enough fuel (there are no petrol stations); make sure you have a spare tire and know roughly how to replace it; bring water in case for whatever reason you do get stuck.  Whilst it is quite isolated at times, I saw around 30 other vehicles on my trip (locals and tourists) so you will have support if you run into problems (in fact it will be in their interest to help you if you are blocking the road!)

Walking Jebel Sham’s Wadi Ghul canyon

Jebel Shams is regularly listed as one of the highlights of Oman, and rightly so – the view down into the immense Wadi Ghul is impressive and justifies its tag as the “Grand Canyon of Arabia”.  You’ve also got the drive up there with a spectacular mountain landscape that makes it very hard not to stop regularly for photos 

 

There’s a lot of writing about carpet sellers and that sort of stuff, but they’re really only a very minor part of the experience.  In reality it’s all about looking over the canyon sides and walking deep into the canyon on the gorgeous Balcony Walk and, if you have a spare day, hiking up to the peak of Jebel Shams itself (3009m / 9872ft)

 

Top tip #1 – its all about the Wadi Ghul canyon and the Balcony Walk.  The maps and general tips for the place can be super confusing.  What you are basically looking to do is look over the edge in the Wadi Ghul canyon (Jebel Shams View Point 3 is great for this) and walk the Balcony Walk (aka W6) which is a 1.5-2.5 hour walk (there and back) along a light to moderate slope that starts near the wide point of the canyon (Balcony Walk Guesthouse) and ends at an abandoned village at one of the end points of the canyon (very clearly signposted).  Even if you’re not keen on the full walk, it’s still worth just walking the first 15mins or so as that has some of the best views 

 

Top tip #2 – you can drive up to the Jebel Shams plateau without a 4WD. For sure it’s easier in the 4WD, but as long as you are a confident driver and it isn’t raining you will be fine.  You’ll have maybe 20 / 30mins of unpaved road, with only a couple of sections you’ll need to pay attention to

 

Where to stay – I stayed at the Sama Heights Resort, which was really nice and fit in perfectly with the surroundings.  It’s only a 5min drive or so to the first views of the canyon

Turtles laying and hatching at Ras Al Jinz

Ras Al Jinz is a beach and wildlife centre that is at the far eastern end of the Arabian Peninsula and is an important protected site for the Green Turtle species to lay their eggs.  What these turtles go through in their migrations and nesting techniques to secure the next generation is truly mind-blowing, and in seeing the small hatchlings making their way back to the ocean at such a small size next to the giant mothers is actually quite emotional . . .

 

. . . but the problem with this experience is how it is managed, which feels like all the bad aspects of mass tourism.  You’re grouped with fellow tourists all at the same time around 9pm (there were around 5 groups of 25 when I visited) all walk the 20mins to the beach together; all wait right near each other to approach a turtle; all stumble around in the dark not quite knowing where you are going for around 30mins; and then all walk back 20mins to the visitor centre.  The format wouldn’t be so bad if the guides had a bit of passion because tourists understand the restrictions of no light and the need to not disturb the turtles, but they all tend to have that more-bothered-about-their-mobile-phone-and-guests-are-a-bit-of-a-nuisance attitude that is unfortunately all too common in the Middle East

 

Don’t get me wrong, it’s quite funny as you collectively laugh at how silly the whole thing is.  And, you do get to see glimpses of the turtles digging themselves in, laying eggs and hatchlings at this time of year.  But its just not worth the long drive there.  Your time could be far better spent in the wonderful red deserts or mountains of Oman

 

If determined to go, I would advise staying at the Turtle Guest House rather than the Turtle Reserve.  30% of the price, nice enough and they also organise your tour for you

Hiking and swimming Wadi Shab

Wadi Shab is a large gorge that makes its way from the Eastern Hajar Mountains to meet the Arabian Sea.  Purely for looking at it is beautiful – steep arid dramatic sides rising above and crystal clear turquoise water rushing through the streams and irrigation channels that cross all through the gorge (and are actually UNESCO World Heritage sites on their own).  But, the main reason the trip is so cool and worth the visit is the mini adventure of hiking and then swimming through the warm water of the gorge to find the partly submerged cave with small waterfall at the end.  Great fun

Top tip – get there early.  I arrived at 745am and had the walk and swim into the gorge completely to myself, which was magical.  The way back I counted maybe 50 people passing me, which would have been a very different vibe and suggests that groups arrive around 9am.  The small boats that transport you the first 2-3 mins across the water start at 7am (1 Omani Rial / USD2.5), so you can start anytime from then

How much time is needed – the guides say 4 hours, but I think you only need 2-3 hours – 45mins to walk to the start of swim, 30mins for the swim (wading / swimming / standing – not all swimming!), and then a bit shorter on the way back.  I was back on the small boats after 2 hours and wasn’t at all rushing

What to bring – because the swim is at the end, I reckon you could get by without a dry bag or water shoes because you can just leave your dry stuff at the start of the swim.  That being said, the adventure feel of taking the dry bag with me through the swim was fun

The gap into the partly submerged cave at the end is very small!  I turned up, on my own, not knowing there was a cave or a small gap – quite the moment deciding to go for it!

You don’t need a guide – it’s a very straightforward route and not really worth the OR25 / USD65

Where to stay – Wadi Shab Resort was basic (most places are in Oman) but really nice with immediate access to the pebble beach where you can spot sea turtles